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Humor, Ethics, and Dignity: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

  • Sean Kanuck


The growing adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) raises questions about what comparative advantage, if any, human beings will have over machines in the future. This essay explores what it means to be human and how those unique characteristics relate to the digital age. Humor and ethics both rely upon higher-level cognition that accounts for unstructured and unrelated data. That capability is also vital to decision-making processes—such as jurisprudence and voting systems. Since machine learning algorithms lack the ability to understand context or nuance, reliance on them could lead to undesired results for society. By way of example, two case studies are used to illustrate the legal and moral considerations regarding the software algorithms used by driverless cars and lethal autonomous weapons systems. Social values must be encoded or introduced into training data sets if AI applications are to be expected to produce results similar to a “human in the loop.” There is a choice to be made, then, about whether we impose limitations on these new technologies in favor of maintaining human control, or whether we seek to replicate ethical reasoning and lateral thinking in the systems we create. The answer will have profound effects not only on how we interact with AI but also on how we interact with one another and perceive ourselves.



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1 See, for example, “AI, Radiology and the Future of Work,” Economist, June 7, 2018,; and Stacey Liberatore, “Your Days Could Be Numbered If You're a Sports Writer: The Associated Press Is Using AI to Write Minor League Baseball Articles,” Daily Mail, June 30, 2016,

2 UN General Assembly, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Res. 217 (III) A, Preamble, December 10, 1948,

3 See “Algorithm Appointed Board Director,” BBC News, May 16, 2014,; and Sophie Brown, “Could Computers Take Over the Boardroom?,” CNN Business, October 1, 2014,

4 See Zara Stone, “Everything You Need to Know about Sophia, the World's First Robot Citizen,” Forbes, November 7, 2017,

5 John Morreall, “Philosophy of Humor,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, revised September 28, 2016, Section 4,

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 See generally Thomson, Judith Jarvis, “The Trolley Problem,” Yale Law Journal 94, no. 6 (1985), p. 1395.

9 See generally Arrow, Kenneth J., Social Choice and Individual Values, 3rd edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

10 See “Chancery Division,” Encyclopedia Britannica, revised October 19, 2018,

11 Ibid.

12 Forte, David F., “Islamic Law and the Crime of Theft: An Introduction,” Cleveland State Law Review 34 (1985–1986), p. 47,

13 International Committee of the Red Cross, “What is IHL?” September 18, 2015,

14 For example, IBM's “Watson” supercomputer does not know whether it is playing a televised game show like Jeopardy or solving corporate problems. It lacks the situational awareness of a human being.

15 See generally Lessig, Lawrence, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

16 See Michael Taylor, “Self-Driving Mercedes-Benzes Will Prioritize Occupant Safety over Pedestrians,” Car and Driver, October 7, 2016,

17 See, for example, United States Department of Justice, “Former CEO of Volkswagen AG Charged with Conspiracy and Wire Fraud in Diesel Emissions Scandal,” May 3, 2018,

18 See UN Web TV, “Second 2018 Meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts on Emerging Technologies in the Area of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems,” August 27, 2018,

19 David Hoffman, “I Had A Funny Feeling in My Gut,” Washington Post, February 10, 1999,

20 See Harvard Law School Library, “Words of Justice: Roof Garden Wall – Right Panel,”


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Humor, Ethics, and Dignity: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

  • Sean Kanuck


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